Zachary Wester Trial Day 1: Witness testimony begins
Day one of Zachary Wester’s trial began Monday, May 10, after the coronavirus pandemic delayed it.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - The trial for a former Jackson County deputy accused of planting drugs on people during a dozen minor traffic stops between 2016 and 2018 is now underway.
Zachary Wester faces charges of official misconduct, racketeering, perjury and fabricating evidence, totaling 67 counts. He was arrested in July 2019, but the coronavirus pandemic delayed his trial until May 10, 2021.
“They were powerless and taken to jail for crimes they did not commit,” prosecutors told the jury in their opening statements Monday morning.
In Sept. 2019, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement announced it had analyzed more than 1,300 minutes of video during its investigation into Wester. Wester was fired from the sheriff’s office in Sept. 2018 because of footage from his body camera.
You can watch day one of the trial on the WCTV Facebook page.
The prosecutor told the jury that none of the meth discoveries were recorded on Wester’s body cam video, that many of the videos were incomplete and in some cases, there were no videos at all.
He told the jury that all of the motorists reacted with “complete shock and adamant denial” when Wester told them he’d found drugs in their car. He contends the drugs were always discovered right after Wester returned to his patrol car in the midst of the search.
He told the jury the drugs were “pre-loaded inside his search gloves for ready use.”
The prosecutor admits several of the defendants chose not to fight the charges, and later entered pleas in court.
“They believed it was their word against a sheriff’s deputy and no one would believe them,” the prosecutor said. “They felt powerless.”
Defense attorney Ryan Davis told the jury that Wester will take the stand and explain what happened during every one of the traffic stops in question.
He challenged the jury to keep an open mind until they hear all the testimony, see all the evidence and hear from Wester himself.
“You’re not here to rubber-stamp the government’s case, you’re here to test it,” Davis told the jury. “Examine it, kick the tires of the case, look under the hood.”
Davis shared a series of numbers with the jury. He said the motorists have 33 convictions and crimes of dishonesty among them and seven of them did not fight the charges.
Davis told the jury that there were a total of 11 backup officers on the different scenes and none noticed anything awry.
“They were right there... in broad daylight,” he said.
In one of the stops, a K9 alerted to drugs in the car, prompting the search, Davis claimed.
“The dog said, ‘I smell drugs in there,’” Davis told the jury.
Defense attorneys say if the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office suggests Wester did not follow policy in activating his body camera, he points out the supervisor did not follow policy in checking, downloading and maintaining the videos either.
Davis also claims Wester’s patrol car was not properly secured for “four or five weeks” before it was searched. He said there was no evidence tape securing the doors, windows or the trunk.
The first witnesses on the stand in the trial of Zachary Wester outlined the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office policies for properly operating body cameras and securing evidence.
Both testified that Deputy Wester had been trained on the department’s policies and procedures.
One of the documents outlined the impact an arrest can have on someone’s life and cautioned against the mindset of ‘let the court system figure it out.’
Wester’s field training officer read aloud his 2016 recommendation that indicated Wester was ready to patrol on his own. His recommendation described Wester as “knowledgeable” and “polite and professional.”
On cross-examination, the field training officer read aloud a portion of the policies and procedures on evidence. It clearly indicates that vehicles awaiting processing should be secured and the keys placed in a sealed envelope. The field training officer says he believes JCSO requires vehicles to be processed within three days.
The JCSO’s former IT administrator testified that he helped to develop the department’s policies for using Axon body cameras. He said it was the deputy’s responsibility to dock his or her body camera at the end of their shift and download any videos.
He testified that deputies could access the cloud to see the videos, but could not edit or delete them. He testified that JCSO required the videos to be kept for 120 days and an administrator had to review them before they could be deleted.
The former IT administrator said he did not delete any of the videos in the Wester case and did not help anyone else delete them.
The FDLE agent who served as the lead case agent in the Wester case took the stand just before lunch.
Special Agent Diana Chase testified that she gathered and reviewed the case files for 12 motorists who had been stopped and arrested by Wester between July 2017 and June 2018.
Chase also gathered body cam videos from the JCSO and the State Attorney’s Office. She testified there was no body camera video in four of the arrests.
On cross-examination, Chase says FDLE was asked to take over the investigation in August 2018.
Chase says all four of the arrests without body cam video were in 2017.
She says she did not search Wester’s car.
Before allowing the jurors to leave for lunch, the judge strongly cautioned them against talking to each other or anyone else about the case. He also ordered them not to view any media coverage or social media posts about the trial.
The jury also heard testimony from several of the people Wester arrested. Joshua Emmanuel was pulled over for a suspended license. During the search, Wester says he found a syringe, and what appeared to be a narcotic.
“Total confusion, I didn’t know what was going on,” Emmanuel testified in court.
About twelve witnesses took the stand Monday, and more people Wester arrested are expected to testify Tuesday.
Wester formally entered a not guilty plea in July 2019. Prosecutors have already dropped charges in more than 100 cases connected to Wester.
- Body camera footage shows deputy planting drugs during traffic stops
- Former Jackson County deputy enters not guilty plea
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